The Moral Case for Tuition Fees

Stephen Caulfield proposes paying for education.

“The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students.”

The words of one Alex Salmond: University of St. Andrews alumnus, two-time leader of the Scottish National Party, and our longest serving First Minister.

A passionate advocate for free higher education and, well, all things “free,” Mr Salmond’s tenure at the top of Scottish politics is tainted by his reckless, irresponsible and middle-class-wooing populism. Nowhere is this clearer than in higher education. The abolition of university tuition fees typifies an approach to governing which has left Scotland poorer, both fiscally and morally. But first, and for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the minutiae of education policy in Scotland, I think it best if we have a very brief rundown on the history of fees both north and south of the River Tweed.   

The SNP’s decision to abolish all forms of student-made tuition payments in the higher education sector on coming to power in 2007 was heralded as a triumph of the devolution-era. It followed on from the reforms of the previous Labour-Liberal executive, who, in 2000, implemented the principles contained in the 1999 Cubie report. The report argued for the replacement of the annual fee in favour of a “graduate endowment,” paid in one lump sum after the degree’s conclusion. Meanwhile, the “Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998” saw England go in the opposite direction. As of 2017, the maximum amount charged to a UK citizen studying in an English university is £9,250 per annum, payable after graduation, and when the graduate is earning over £21,000.

Of course, I recognise that if moves were to be made in Holyrood to introduce tuition fees, they wouldn’t exactly enthuse Scots. In fact, during last year’s election, maintaining  the status quo on education was the 2nd top priority of Scottish voters. After all, why pay for something you’ve already got for free? Why fork out £36,000 (plus interest) when “someone else” can do it for you?

Except it’s not “free,” and that’s the issue. And see that “someone else?” That someone else isn’t, in fact, “someone else.” It’s you.

Herein lies the moral responsibility for introducing fees to Scotland.

For those of you who know me, and for those who read my last article, this attitude won’t come as a surprise. As a proud Conservative, I recognise personal responsibility as the bedrock on which much of our society rests.

Naturally, I think you should to. You don’t need to be a Tory, or even vaguely right-of-centre, to recognise that having someone else pay your way in life is morally wrong, especially when your graduate job is likely to cover the costs.

At the end of the day, fees are not paid up front, with some wicked witch from admissions raiding the pockets of the poorest for £9,250 every September. They are better understood as an investment, a form of compensation for an educational establishment, like St. Andrews, that has enhanced your career and earning prospects immeasurably in your four years.

Furthermore, the idea that the most deprived students are somehow blocked from attending university through the imposition of fees is simply not born out in fact: “the poorest fifth of Scots are 3.5 times less likely to go to university through UCAS than the top fifth… The difference is only 2.5 times in England.” By all measures, working-class Scots are being given fewer chances at success than their English counterparts, and that “access gap” is widening.

Also, if the impacts of universal free education are looked at closely, the moral case for fees becomes clear.

The very principle that the hard-working family with two kids, the single mother struggling to get by on welfare, and the elderly war veteran on his threadbare state pension should pay for the Duke’s daughter to attend is unjust and ill-thought out at best, morally reprehensible at worst.

So whilst I don’t expect a Damascene conversion on tuition fees in St. Andrews anytime soon, I hope you can be persuaded by the case for more personal responsibility in education, and why all of us should view education as an investment, not a right.

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